There is a dazzling new smile on Broadway packing audiences into the Ambassador Theatre where the long running revival of the 1975 Kander and Ebb musical Chicago has been playing for a number of years. The charismatic smile belongs to the one and only Rhythm and Blues superstar, the one name wonder Usher. His presence in the acclaimed musical that has also been made into an Oscar winning film has revitalized the box office to such an extent that the show’s now scarce tickets have become a hot item in much demand.
The self proclaimed “Ultimate Entertainer” is making his Broadway stage debut branching out into his newest yet career arena. He plays the cynical silver fox Billy Flynn, following in a long line of leading men who have tackled the part of the hard edged criminal attorney including Jerry Orbach, who originated the role, James Naughton, who won a Tony, and Richard Gere who possessed a captivating charm that snared him an Oscar nomination in the recent film version.
Playwright Douglas Carter Beane takes on Hollywood hypocrisy and the cost of fame in his clever new comedy, The Little Dog Laughed, which may be the tastiest treat in town. Directed by Scott Ellis with a crisp engaging style that mines all of the play’s tangy zingers, the evening is an audience pleasing feast.
Disney Theatrical Productions reportedly spent over 15 million dollars to launch the musical spectacle Tarzan on Broadway. Based on their 1999 animated film with a hit soundtrack by Phil Collins that includes the Oscar winning song “You’ll Be in My Heart,” the extravaganza sailed into town amidst a tremendous publicity blitz and boasting a lush box office advance of 20 million dollars. Big money seems to be the name of the game and Disney has single handedly changed the complexion of the Broadway scene becoming a major player here by turning their animated films Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King into expensive long running hits. Only time will tell if Tarzan succeeds as well, but irregardless the mega show is not a major artistic achievement, despite some staggeringly outstanding special effects by the talented designer-director Bob Crowley.The amazing opening sequence of a ship being tossed across the sea in a thrilling technologically created storm replete with thunder and lightning is the highlight of the evening. The drama begins simply with a blue scrim curtain on which moving images of the continent of Africa are projected until a ship sails into view on the blue ocean. These images are morphed into a violent sea storm enhanced by a soundtrack that brings you inside the ship, as a man, a woman, and a child struggle frantically against the powerful waters. We witness bodies twisting in the air and falling through space against a background of horrendous sounds until the family is ultimately thrown upon the beach with a blast of lightning. In a momentary flash the blue ocean is transformed into a green forest of tangled hanging vines where their struggle to survive continues. They claw their way across the beach until a black panther descends upon them, killing the parents, and leaving only the crying baby behind.
The British director John Doyle reinvented Sweeny Todd last season with an imaginative production that won him the Tony Award for Outstanding Direction of a Musical. In his revolutionary staging he did away with the orchestra and instead had the cast double as musicians. Now he has applied the same idea to his current Broadway revival of Stephen Sondheim’s classic 1975 musical Company, which recently premiered with the same cast to excellent notices at the Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park this past spring. What worked marvelously for Todd, however, hinders Company. The concept interferes with the momentum draining the evening from any sense of urgency and taking the actors out of the moment.
The Jerry Bock/Sheldon Harnick musical The Apple Tree hasn’t been revived on Broadway since the original 1966 production, which starred Barbara Harris in a Tony Award winning performance. Esteemed director Mike Nichols helmed the show and the leading lady received capable support from Alan Alda, but the musical was considered rather slim even back then. Now the Roundabout Theatre Company has brought a revival based on the acclaimed 2005 New York City Center Encores production to Studio 54. The Apple Tree directed by Gary Griffin is still slender; however, the cast headed by the dynamic Kristin Chenoweth with Brian d’Arcy James and Marc Kudisch delivers top notch robust comic work in hopes of filling the gap.
Paul Rudnick’s newest play Regrets Only, a modern day social comedy set in a lavish Manhattan penthouse is jam packed with hysterical dialogue and witty one liners. There are many madcap moments in his new comedy, which takes on topics like friendship and gay marriage, but the evening fails to engage with thought provoking relevance. Mr. Rudnick, who won awards for his early play Jeffrey and had an Off Broadway hit with The Most Fabulous Story Ever Told, is a very funny playwright, indeed, but his work about political awakening with characters boarding on caricature is unfortunately underdeveloped.
Hallelujah! The Color Purple, the new Broadway musical, is a joyous celebration of the human spirit. Culled from Alice Walker’s 1982 Pulitzer Prize winning novel, the impassioned tale is a shimmering mosaic that is more than a triumph in every way. Here is a reason to rejoice! The Color Purple is a serious musical graced with intelligence and humor that is destined to become a classic.
The Manhattan Theatre Club misfires again with the new British import Losing Louie directed by veteran Jerry Zaks. The comedy is Simon Mendes da Costa’s second play and was nominated for an Evening Standard Award in London where it debuted last season. The playwright shows promise, but the Americanized production gracing the stage of the Biltmore is a one dimensional mess.
Cameron Mackintosh, who brought us Cats, The Phantom of the Opera and Miss Saigon, is presenting a Broadway revival of his long running smash hit musical Les Miserables just over three years after the show, which is still running in London, closed a successful run here in May of 2003. Directed by John Caird and Trevor Nunn, the same team that directed and adapted the first, this new version with fresh orchestrations by Christopher Jahnke has been slightly scaled down for the smaller stage and boasts an entirely new cast of excellent singers, but the evening feels like a vibrant carbon copy of the masterful original without its stirring heart.
George Bernard Shaw is a world renowned British playwright, a literary figure whose impressive body of work lists several novels and more than 50 plays including Pygmalion (1912), which was turned into the perfectly sublime musical My Fair Lady. At the time of his death in 1950 he was considered by many to be one of the greatest playwrights in the English language. His plays are filled with wit and are striking because of his comments on contemporary issues and values that encourage the audience to become engaged in evaluating the world.
David Hare’s new drama, The Vertical Hour, the first of his plays to premier on Broadway, continues his discussion of the war in Iraq, which was the basis of his most recent New York production, Stuff Happens, at the Public theatre. The central character is played by the much acclaimed film star Julianne Moore, an actress whose film work reflects thoughtful subtleties. Making her Broadway debut here she is decidedly miscast in a role that appears to be complex, but which is unfortunately underdeveloped.
A glossily refurbished revival of the Michael Bennett classic, A Chorus Line, has arrived on Broadway 16 years after the endearing musical ended a nearly 15 year run becoming in the process one of the most successful Broadway musicals ever. When it opened in 1975 Chorus Line was considered an extraordinary ground breaking achievement winning nine Tony awards including wins for best score by Marvin Hamlisch, best lyrics by Edward Kleban, best book by James Kirkwood and Nicholas Dante as well as multiple wins for the actors. The current reincarnation clones the brilliant original in almost every detail right down to the costumes, and while the dancing remains gripping, the evening fails as drama where the original soared.
Martin Short the Tony award winning star of Little Me has come to Broadway with his very own show Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me, a blissfully entertaining spoof of the current trend by stars to tell their life stories on The Great White Way. The multi award winning Short has starred in several films, but is probably best known for his television appearances that includes an Emmy Award for his work on SCTV Comedy Network. He is an immensely talented physical comedian that has given us stand out characterizations on “Saturday Night Live” as Ed Grimley, Jackie Rogers Jr., songwriter Irving Cohen and lawyer Nathan Thurman as well as snaring two Ace Awards for comedy specials he co-wrote, produced and starred in. The greatly admired wit created the hilarious Jiminy Glick for “Primetime Glick,” and even had his own daily show, “The Martin Short Show,” so there are apparently few limits to his extraordinary gifts. Co- written by Short with Daniel Goldfarb Fame Becomes Me is an outrageously fictionalized autobiography about an over the hill celebrity, who bares his soul on stage. Created as a satire on ego tripping stars like Elaine Stritch, Billy Crystal, and Suzanne Sommers, who have spilled their guts in the name of art, the show is a wacky pack of lies with an edgy charm that is built around Short’s many talents. He unabashedly announces right up front “If I’d saved, I wouldn’t be here,” and that is probably the only telling moment in the entire surreal evening.
The Drowsy Chaperone, a spoof of Broadway musicals from the 1920’s, is an homage to the golden era of theatre when people longed for nothing more than to be magically transported to another world. Although little more than a parody of stock characters singing a pastiche of songs from the period that steels boldly from later day musicals as well, the evening is served with such tremendous style and wit that the loving tribute actually stops time. We are allowed for a brief hour and 40 minutes to chase all the blues away and escape into the madness of the musical theatre world.The evening begins with the audience sitting in a pitch black theatre for a few moments before we hear the voice of our host, simply referred to as Man in Chair, saying “Dear Lord please let it be good.” We are then taken into the cluttered New York City apartment of this die hard musical theatre fan, where he sits stage right in an overstuffed easy chair next to his record player. Yes record player, no CDs for him, he loves the static from the needle saying, “To me that’s the sound of a time machine starting up.”
When Sara Ruhl’s play The Clean House begins we are confronted with a character in a spotlessly clean all white house telling a rather long and apparently very funny joke in Portuguese. There are no subtitles, but we know the joke is funny from the character’s demonstrative body language and the enjoyable relish with which she embellishes her tale.We soon learn that she is Matilde (Vanessa Aspillaga) the Brazilian maid of Lane (Blair Brown) a cleanliness obsessed workaholic doctor, who freely admits, “I did not go to medical school to clean my o
wn house,” and herein is one of the comedy’s central conflicts. Matilde soon confesses to us that she doesn’t like to clean; in fact cleaning makes her depressed, so much so that she would much prefer to spend her time discovering the world’s funniest joke.Virginia (Jill Clayburgh) Lane’s sister, who uses cleaning to make herself feel better insists that, “People who give up the privilege of cleaning their own houses are insane people,” and comes to Matide’s rescue by offering to clean her sister’s home for her. When Lane realizes to her horror that Virginia has been cleaning her house instead of Matilde, she fires the maid, but events turn even bleaker when the three discover Charles (John Dossett), Lane’s surgeon husband, is having an affair with Ana (Concetta Tomei) his 67 year old breast cancer patient, who the surgeon believes to be his soul mate.